13 Feb 2019

NZ role in Tokelau suspensions questioned in High Court

4:39 pm on 13 February 2019

A Tokelau High Court judge has questioned New Zealand's role in the controversial suspension of two public servants in Tokelau.

18072016 Photo: Rebekah Parsons-King. Wellington High Court.

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The comments were made during a landmark hearing of the territory's High Court, which sat in Wellington on Monday and Tuesday.

Jovilisi Suveinakama and Heto Puka were blamed by Tokelau's government for mis-spending millions of dollars on helicopters and were fired in 2017 after investigations into their conduct.

The pair, who are suing the government and ulu, or leader, over their dismissals, were initially suspended days after a request from New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) to Tokelau's government.

The letter, from Jonathan Kings, an MFAT official, said "it would provide New Zealand with greater confidence" in Tokelau if the pair were suspended while they were being investigated. The letter's contents were first reported by RNZ Pacific in 2017.

On Tuesday, Judge Peter Churchman said it looked like the request from Mr Kings was the only reason Mr Suveinakama and Mr Puka had been suspended.

"If indeed that was the reason for suspension, that's a problem because someone who is not the employer influenced a pretty fundamental aspect of the employment relationship," he told the High Court.

A lawyer for the defendants, Richard Fowler, said there was no evidence New Zealand influenced Tokelau's decision.

He also cautioned against any allegations against New Zealand's government because its administrator to Tokelau, Ross Ardern, was struck out as a defendant in the case in January.

"We need to be very careful here because these are allegations that have been made against a defendant in respect of whom the proceedings have been stayed, but the third defendant," Mr Fowler said.

Mr Ardern made appearances in the court's public gallery on Monday and Tuesday along with Foreign Ministry officials.

Judge Peter Churchman reserved his decision on Tuesday, which will take several weeks.